Halifax West: Lessons from a Sick School

(NSAEHA UPdate, cover story. Winter 2001)

Once upon a time there was a sick school. Teachers were sick. Students were sick.  Experts were called in to look at the school. They scratched their heads.  They were concerned.  They did some work, but no one believed the school was very sick. The school was called Halifax West High School.

From the day Halifax West opened, in 1958, the stage was set for this school to develop building related health problems. It was designed with flat “butterfly” roofs that work well enough in California weather, but deteriorate relatively rapidly in the tough Nova Scotia climate. And although the architect’s original designs had called for insulation of the exterior walls and proper grading of the grounds to drain rainwater away from the building, somehow the insulation was not installed (causing condensation and wetness within the walls) and the grading carried groundwater toward the building. As early as 1977, there are reports of roof leaks.  When it rained puddles would appear in classrooms.

In recent years, the school has been nicknamed the Sleeping Giant. Staff and members of the community knew that something about the school was making people sick.  Some  people were only sick while they were in the building, but for others, mostly teachers, the problems persisted even when they were at home.  For some, the problems became so bad they were forced to leave work, and even years after remain disabled.  Some parents sent their children to other school districts. “Lots of people knew it was not a healthy place.” said one parent. “I sent my daughter to live with relatives to finish high school in another town.  Don’t think I didn’t miss her.”

Records of written complaints of health problems began in March 1990 and persisted until the closure of the school in August 2000. When the school was finally evaluated in July of 1999, Professor Tang Lee wrote “From September of 1993 to May 2000, 276 known complaints of air quality were reported by students and teachers of Halifax West High School.  The complaints include odours and illness symptoms that may be attributed to the environmental conditions of the school” ( Lee report, July 99).

Karen Robinson is a healthy schools advocate.  She is co-founder and president of Citizens for A Safe Learning Environment (CASLE). CASLE is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving environmental health and safety in schools. Robinson has environmental illness herself, and her son, who has marked environmental sensitivities, was heading for high school at Halifax West.  Robinson has been involved with the Halifax West issue since 1998. She has worked with teachers and members of the schools health and safety committee. “It’s not that easy to make a complaint about the air quality in your school,” Robinson explains.  “People are afraid of being called hypochondriacs, or considered a bit nuts, especially if they are getting sick and others aren’t.”

Like most schools, Halifax West did not have any established way for indoor air quality complaints to be made or investigated.  In fact, although health problems had been identified for over ten years, and five different studies were done, no one ever surveyed the school population of teachers, staff and students to find out how extensive the problems were. Now that the school has been closed, more parents have been speaking openly about illnesses their children suffered while at Halifax West. But even without a survey, the history of health complaints at Halifax West reads like a textbook description of Sick Building Syndrome. Students and teachers reported respiratory problems and infections, fatigue, headaches, asthma attacks, skin rashes, migraines, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, reduced concentration, eye and mouth irritation, and more.  More complaints came from teachers than students.  While students came and went, staff remained year after year, which put them at greater risk.  There is no record of how many teachers transferred out of the school, or how many children were transferred to other districts by their parents. In many cases, children were sick but the parents did not connect the problems to the school. “My daughter had a cold, runny nose, stuffed up,  the whole time she was at Halifax West. I thought nothing of it until she graduated and went to college and has been healthy ever since” commented one parent.

Over the past 40 years the practice of deferred maintenance compounded the bad beginning.  Leaks were not repaired adequately. Corners were cut on replacement or repair of aging or defective materials. At some point drainage areas of windows and brick walls had been caulked, preventing moisture from escaping. Rainwater drain pipes under the school had plugged and backed up onto the roofs. No one realized that channeling maintenance budget monies into educational programs year after year would eventually result in schools that could make people ill.

By 1994, with a growing awareness in the community about air quality issues, the Halifax District School Board conducted a study of air quality within its schools. Twenty four of the forty seven schools tested contained fungal species that are notorious mycotoxin producers which the study labeled “unacceptable occupants of indoor air”. Today, when mycotoxin producing moulds are found, an area is immediately closed off.   But in 1994, the general approach to dealing with molds was to clean the area with javex and then, more often than not, build a false ceiling or wall to cover up the problem area.  Eliminating the source of moisture, to prevent the mold from regrowing, was seldom done.  And it was even less common to remove materials contaminated with dead molds, even though dead molds, especially those with mycotoxins, can create serious health problems.

At Halifax West, the 1994 assessment found mycotoxin producing molds andother less toxic but still potentially harmful molds. The report stated that these molds grow in places that are “chronically wet from condensation or water infiltration problems.  The presence of yeast and bacteria in the samples suggest that they have been recently wetted.” But parents andstaff were not informed of the test results or their implications. Children and staff continued to use the contaminated areas. The same thing happened at other Halifax schools.

One of the factors which contributed to this situation is the lack of legislated standards for indoor air quality in schools and offices.  The Education Act has no teeth when it comes to school health and safety issues. The Department of Labour has legislation to cover health and safety of workers on the job, but these standards are designed to cover hazards found in industrial settings. Also, they are designed to apply to healthy, 175 pound males, not the typical high school teacher, secretary or student.

Although the provincial government has been working on indoor air quality regulations since 1994, these regulations are still not in place. And there is no equivalent legislation which applies to students at school. And without legally binding standards, there is little clout to force school clean-ups.

School health and safety issues are usually dealt with by an occupational health and safety committee (JOHSC) made up of employer and employee representatives.  At Halifax West, the school JOHSC only obtained a copy of the 1994 report on molds in 1996, two years after it was written.  When they did, they wondered, could this explain the health problems staff and students were experiencing?  The committee pushed for further testing which was done in 1997.  As a result of these tests, a major overhaul, costing half a million dollars, was done to remove the mould.  No one knew then that the leaks causing the mould growth were not fixed, and that the mould would regrow.

Immediately after the renovations health problems decreased, but in a short time health complaints increased again.  The school JOHSC refused to let the issue drop.  They pushed for yet another assessment of the school’s air quality.  This assessment was carried out in February 1999 and concluded that  “Since the completion of significant remediative activities in August, 1977, symptoms and complaints have not decreased; on the contrary, some of the staff have experienced increased severity of negative health effects that appear to be associated with environmental conditions.” (OCL Report, 1999)  The Report recommended that the Board “Carry out a total environmental and condition assessment of the complete facility…”

Unfortunately, the first attempt at a total environmental assessment was far from total.  The engineer hired  visited the school briefly on two occasions and did not conduct any air sampling or on-site investigation. The report contradicted earlier reports. It concluded  “there are no long term build-up of unacceptable indoor air contaminants in this school to which occupants are exposed.” (Van Hiep Report, 1999)

He went even further and concluded that “The complaints are more likely related to the tasks or the profession of the persons than the indoor environment.  He also claimed “It seems that this school witnesses the Hawthorne Effect according to which the more attention one gives to the people, the more people give back attention.”  In other words, the health complaints were a result of people believing themselves to be sick, because the school’s air quality had been studied so much.  Although he had no medical training, he went even further and questioned the competence of physicians who had stated that  the symptoms people were experiencing were typical of Sick Building Syndrome. The report created both anger and despair within the school community.

However, the report did recommend upgrading the school’s  ventilation system.  The School Board decided to install an exhaust-only system at Halifax West.  Unfortunately, an exhaust-only system is a very bad choice for a building with a history of mould in the walls. Exhaust-only systems suck air in through windows and doors when they are open,  but in bad weather when they are closed it draws air from cracks and air passages within the walls, spreading dust particles molds throughout the school and making problems worse rather than better.  On the advice of Robinson, the Health and Safety Committee pointed this out to the School Board and, when they would not listen, to the Department of Labour.  The Departmentof Labour agreed that this was a bad choice  in this situation. But the Board went ahead. In order to install the new air pipes, ceiling tiles in several halls had to be removed.  When this was done, the smell of dust and mold was so strong that sensitive teachers and students went home ill. For some teachers, this exposure was the breaking point which resulted in long term disability.

It was clear that the work was uncovering a serious mold problem. Yet installation of the ventilation system went ahead without any attempt to find or correct the source of the mold.

By this time, five different companies had evaluated the building. Four had concluded that molds were an ongoing problem.  So why was it so difficult to get the problem fixed? In addition to the search for a cheap solution indoor air quality assessment is a relatively new field. There are no universities or technical colleges graduating indoor air quality experts.  Engineers, yes.  Ventilation experts, yes.  But just as there are few legislative standards, there are few technical experts trained to investigate the full range of factors which could contribute to indoor air quality problems. So, to the problem of original construction flaws, and deferred maintenance, add the difficulty in finding knowledgeable experts as well as uninformed  decision making. As a result, between 1997 and 1999 over a million dollars was spent on repairs that did not get to the root of the problem.

And where were the parents?  Until this point, parents had been concerned but not organized.  In 1999 that changed. Robinson had been providing advice and information to several members of the JOHSC. On her recommendation, the JOSHC opened its doors to a parent representative, Jane Davies. Davies, a Halifax West graduate herself, has two children who were headed for Halifax West, and was committed to seeing the problems solved. Working with PTA’s at every elementary and junior high school which fed into Halifax West, she organized the Halifax West Feeder School Group, with elected representatives from each PTA.  She made sure that parents at every school were kept informed of problems and proposed action.  Their objective: to get to the bottom of the health problems at Halifax West and to make sure they were solved.  The group was powerful, informed and well organized.

Davies explained, “As parents, we had nothing to lose.  We weren’t afraid to speak when something needed to be said, or to push for action when action was needed.”  CASLE became more involved, contributing information on up to date research in school health issues, and contacts with some of the leading experts in this field. Working together with the Health and Safety Committee, the voices for effective action were getting louder.

The provincial Department of Education heard those voices, and decided to try a new approach to deal with the school’s air quality problems. They set up an action team, involving every group that had a stake in the school’s future, from top civil servants from four departments, to a doctor trained in environmental medicine, parents, staff, students and community representatives.


What was different about the action team’s approach?  They decided to look at the big picture.  They analyzed the history of problems and actions taken.  They started by looking at the legislated workplace standards – and the school passed with flying colours.  They looked at the latest in health and building environment studies.  There was argument and debate.  Is mold really a serious health hazard? Could people’s illnesses really be related to the school?  Finally, they decided not to settle for bandaid solutions and to err, if at all, on the side of caution. They would not wait until there was definitive proof on every issue or until legislation caught up with reality.


They invited Professor Tang Lee to do a total environmental assessment of the school.  Lee is a Professor of Architecture at the University of Calgary whose specialty is healthy building design. He has designed courses on indoor air quality evaluation that are taught at 200 universities, and he teaches and lectures internationally on the subject.  Lee, with a firm knowledge that no one professional can have all of the skills or answers, arrived with a team including mechanical and civil engineers, a building maintenance expert and a biologist specializing in molds and mold abatement.


For the provincial department of education, this assessment would serve a dual purpose.  It would try to solve the air quality problems at Halifax West.  At the same time,  Lee would involve provincial engineering and maintenance experts in the assessment  process. Through their hands-on involvement with this expert team, hopefully they would learn what to look for and become more able to spot similar problems in the making at other schools. The project could conceivably have spin-off benefits for every school in the province.


When Lee and his team did their investigation, they found numbers of problems.  They documented extensive mould grown within walls, ceilings and floors. They found many holes in the walls and second-level ceilings that had been opened at various times over the years for access to pipes or wiring, but which were never resealed. In addition to allowing molds and other pollutants to travel freely through the school, they created a serious fire hazard. Leakage not only created puddles, but also a danger of electrocution. A walkthrough investigation could not have picked up most of the problems, which were not apparent without some real digging.


As a result of the Lee report,  Halifax West was closed in August of 2000 for significant repairs.  The Minister of Education announced an initial government commitment of 8 million dollars  to repair the health and safety deficiencies and to upgrade the school to make it able to deliver current curriculum. At last count estimates for repairs were $11.4 million and rising.

The legacy of Halifax West is just beginning to unfold.  Halifax West has become a symbol of crumbling schools all around Nova Scotia. The issue is now out in the open, in the media and the Legislature.   For the first time, boards and maintenance personnel are admitting publicly how serious the physical deterioration of their buildings is. And, to Robinson’s satisfaction, more knowledge now exists on how to prevent and solve problems. “My objective wasn’t just to see one more school get fixed” says Robinson. “It was to do it so that the effect would be to get everyone learning and changing.”


The Halifax West Feeder School Group has become a symbol of the potential of parent power.  MLA McGrath calls them “the most hard-working, dedicated parents I have ever had the privilege to know.”


But the conditions that led to the problems at Halifax West still exist. And other schools around the province are known to be sleeping giants of the same type. Look for names like Windsor Regional, Alderney, Chebucto Heights, and Dutch Settlement among others.


There are many lessons from Halifax West.  That cutting corners on building maintenance has high long-term costs, both for a building and its inhabitants.  That patterns of illness in a school should not be ignored.  That proactive methods for gathering information about health problems in schools need to be established, as do legislative standards for school air quality.  That a multi-system, multi-expert approach to building health is more efficient in the long run than piecemeal solutions.  That parents need to be involved where their children’s health is at stake.  And that building health cannot be underestimated either as a health issue or an education issue.


Time will tell who has learned their lessons.